Biofuels here cause hunger there? Complex relationships.

17 June 2013

To what extent can hunger in the third world be blamed on the increasing use of biofuels in the West? Annelies Zoomers (Professor of International Development Studies at Utrecht University) has turned her attention to the issue. ‘Hunger is just as much the result of investments in large-scale food crops for export, or expansion of natural parks.’

‘The rapid expansion of bio-fuels does place an additional claim on scarce agricultural land,’ says Zoomers. ‘But that does not implicate a direct link between biofuels and hunger. The main cause of hunger is poverty, sometimes combined with natural disasters, armed conflicts and economic crises. In about thirty countries there is the threat of acute food shortages - often caused by wars. Simultaneously one of the keys to food security in many countries is safe and secure access to land. When the expansion of biofuels takes place at the expense of food crops or displacement of the population, this often leads directly to deepening poverty and food insecurity. Small-scale agricultural food production and local food securtity are currently under pressure. That is not only because of biofuels, but also because of ‘green grabbing’ - the expansion of natural parks. Or because of the rapid expansion of large-scale food crops for export.’

Complex relationship

The relationship between biofuels and food security is complex. NWO research carried out within the Agriculture beyond Food programme (NWO-KNAW) shows that palm production for palm oil has been a major contributor to economic growth in Indonesia. However, such expansion is increasingly taking place at the expense of rice production areas, which contradicts the aim to guarantee food security. Research carried out by Ari Susanti and Paul Burgers shows that this expansion is also accompanied by deforestation and expansion into ecologically-sensitive peatland areas, with negative effects on sustainability.

Increasing vulnarability

It is difficult to establish the existence of a negative relationship between oil palm expansion and food security, says Zoomers. ‘Oil palm can be seen as a ‘flex crop’. Whether or not the palm oil is used for food or as a biofuel depends to a large extent on market forces. Income effects mean that oil palm can also make a positive contribution to food security, but for others its production can result in loss of access to land and increasing vulnerability. In assessing the effects on food security, we therefore need to take into account the fact that beneficial oil palm production opportunities are associated with migration.’ NWO research carried out by Suseno Budidarso shows that this leads to rapid urbanisation and increasing food demand. ‘It is not yet clear what the effects of the rapid growth in oil palm will be on food security at the national level,’ says Zoomers.

Soya situation worse than oil palm

The relationship between biofuels and food security depends very much on the crop. In addition to oil palm, researchers working with Zoomers in the LANDac partnership are also investigating the expansion of genetically-modified soya in Argentina and the Chaco region (Latin America). ‘Soya is also a ‘flex crop’: the effects on food security are determined by market forces, and the consequences for food security by pricing effects – plus the extent to which expansion takes place at the expense of agricultural land.’ Zoomers refers to research conducted by Lucia Goldfarb in Argentina: ‘After initial expansion in the pampas regions, which used to be used for livestock farming, forests are increasingly being destroyed for soya and local groups are being forced to leave the area.’ Lucia Goldfarb’s research shows that the expansion of soya often has negative effects on human rights, health and the environment. In contrast to oil palm, soya production creates almost no jobs and the direct income effects on the local population are limited.’


To get an impression of the relationshop between food security and large-scale investments in land, the situation Africa is most interesting to look at. In sub-Saharan Africa, huge investments are being made in biofuels, as well as in food crops, by countries such as India and Saudi Arabia, but also by European investors. Zoomers and her colleagues carry out research in various countries in Africa within the LANDac partnership. ‘Where there is large-scale land acquisition in densely-populated areas of Ethiopia, there are negative income effects with negative consequences for food security. It can take some considerable time before investments are fully realised. The local people have to move, while there is no increase in employment. This leads to large-scale changes in land use: the introduction of ‘monocrops’. Governments play an active role in attracting investors because this gives opportunities for ‘modernisation’. Often traditional land users are excluded then. Processes such as these also take place in otyher parts of Africa.’

Serious dilemmas

Some countries, such as the Gulf states, India and China, use large-scale land acquisition and offshore farming as a strategy for guaranteeing food security in their own countries. That this takes place in countries that are very poor and have hinger problems is obviously cynical. One man’s bread is another man’s death, notwithstanding several conditions laid to to production and export. ‘Research highlights the dilemmas we face. Sustainability strategies, such as European biofuel standards, are resulting in deforestation and environmental problems elsewhere in the world, and contradict food security. Further expansion particularly needs to be prevented where large-scale biofuel production takes place at the expense of the environment and where it does not benefit the local population,’ says Zoomers. ‘But large-scale investments made in land for food export and ‘green grabbing’ also need to be curbed. Food for export or nature parks are not going to feed most people in Africa. Lobbyists for food security often regard land as a ‘global public good’. But this is at odds with the food security of local groups.’

Further information

Annelies Zoomers is Professor of International Development Studies at Utrecht University and chair of LANDac (, For further information about the project ‘Sliding from greasy land? Migration flows and forest transformation caused by oil palm expansion in Riau, Sumatra and Bearu, East Kalimantan’ within the Agriculture beyond Food programme, please contact Paul Burgers, For more information on GM soya in Argentina:


Source: NWO